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For Crane, each crewmember is an archetype that, when joined with his fellow castaways, constitutes part of a microcosm of society. The captain represents the leaders; the cook the followers; the oiler the good, working men; and the correspondent the observers and thinkers. As his profession as a reporter suggests, the correspondent functions as the eyes and voice of the story. Crane underlines this point in his introduction of the characters in the first section. While the cook is cowering on the boat’s floor and the oiler is silently working at his oar, the correspondent watches the waves and wonders why he is caught on the ocean, a question that reveals the correspondent’s search for purpose in life. With this question alone, the correspondent begins to shape our perceptions of the ordeal the men are undergoing.
In the first five sections of “The Open Boat,” the correspondent’s challenges to the sea, which he associates with nature and fate, reveal his desire to make sense of surviving the ship only to drown in the dinghy. Although he understands that nature and fate do not act and think as men do, the correspondent nevertheless goads them because he believes that there is a purpose to nature, that it in some way validates his struggle for survival. The correspondent initially thinks he finds the answer when he considers the “subtle brotherhood of men” that develops among the crew in response to the overwhelming cruelty of nature. At this point, he takes pleasure in the pain caused by rowing in the rough sea because he believes that this pain is the healthy byproduct of his effort at community, which nature has forced them to create and is the only thing that really matters. As the men realize that no one is coming to save them, however, the correspondent comes to lose hope in the “subtle brotherhood” that had seemed to be the noble purpose of submitting to nature’s punishment.